I've been around my share of low-budget and big budget films for nearly seven years now and it always amazes me just how much goes into making a feature film. It's easy to see how and why actors, directors, writers, cinematographers and even editors get the lion's share of the credit when it comes to a film's ultimate success or failure, for their work is usually the most apparent, yet there are scores of individuals that are essential in bringing a film to life. While I could go on at length about gaffers, grips and even boom operators needing to get more praise for their hard work, I'm going to focus my attention, for now, on the post-production side of things.
Having worked on April Showers for well over a year straight, I've come to realize that even when a team of trained artisans and technicians are doing their best work, it often goes unseen, due to the end result resting in the hands of consumer electronics manufacturers who aren't communicating to the consumer the importance of proper calibration. Whether it's audio or video calibration, it's important to adjust and properly tune your HDTV or home theater, not only to get the most out of your investment and enjoyment, but also to support and honor those who've worked so hard to bring you a total entertainment experience.
This week marks the third week of color correction on April Showers, which is a film that was shot in native 4K and is being finished in both the 2K and 4K levels. While the raw 4K footage shot by my director of photography, Aaron Platt, is stunning, there is a lot of work that needs to be done before it's audience-ready, mainly in the coloring of each and every frame. With regard to 4K, since it's a digital image, a sort of algorithm or lut needs to be applied to even see an image. Once the lut is applied, an image appears, though it is usually dark, a bit washed out or otherwise dull. That's where having a good colorist comes into play. A colorist will go in, extract and enhance the frame and subsequently the scene's inner beauty, bringing it to life the way the cinematographer and the director intended. Another side of a colorist's job is to inject color and subsequently add emotion and feeling into a scene, using the initial frame as a jumping off point. When the colorist and director of photography are working together in harmony, the effects are staggering. There's no making up for a bad director of photography. Remember, garbage in, garbage out. The same is true for colorists. I'm fortunate to have two real pros at the stick on April Showers.
What makes this whole process a little hard to stomach is the fact that few will truly see what Aaron and my colorist Tracy Smith have been able to do, for few consumers know or understand much about video calibration. Manufacturers, especially those making HDTVs, set their displays for the brightest, sharpest possible image, as market research has shown that potential customers view brightness and sharpness as signs of quality. Truth be told, you can get brightness and sharpness from pretty much any display these days; it's color accuracy, especially in the primary colors, and black levels that you want to focus on. Out of the box, your new HDTV or flat panel display is wildly out of sorts, usually defaulting to a Dynamic or Vivid setting, which is about as far from accurate or industry standard as you can get. In these settings, a film may appear more vibrant and alive. However, it's usually at the expense of subtlety and inner detail. They say the devil is in the details, I choose to look at it as "the drama is in the details" and, until your set is calibrated, you're most assuredly robbing yourself of the drama.
However, calibration doesn't have to be a foreign language; in fact, even a novice can achieve some sort of acceptable video image with little effort that will be highly rewarding. There are discs, DVD and Blu-ray, which essentially walk you through the process, explaining every step along the way. A great disc to help guide you through the calibration process is the Digital Video Essentials disc, which is available on both DVD and Blu-ray. The Digital Video Essentials disc is about as robust as they come. With a little time and effort on the part of the consumer, it can yield spectacular results. Another great disc (one geared more toward the novice user, though I know plenty of videophiles who use it exclusively) is the HDTV Calibration Wizard by Monster Cable and ISF. The HDTV Calibration Wizard disc will have you up and running a bit faster than the Digital Video Essentials disc will. Both will steer you towards the same end result, though if you want to go super in-depth, the DVE disc is going to be a bit better. If you don't want to mess about with added discs, some displays can show color bars and/or test patterns right from their menus and you can dial in your image by "eye," which is not ideal, but better than nothing. If you want to go for broke, you can hire a video calibration specialist and he or she will come to your house and do it for you for a small fee. If you are going to go this route, you'll want to make sure your calibrator is ISF-certified to ensure you're getting the most for your money. Sorry, an 18-year-old kid from Geek Squad isn't really going to get it done for you.
Regardless of how you choose to go about calibrating your HDTV, it's important that you do it, for not doing it is robbing you, along with the numerous artists charged with providing you with entertaining content, of the full picture. Trust me, the results won't be subtle and the time it takes pales in comparison to the enjoyment you'll get out of seeing your films and television shows properly. In some instances, it may even appear as if you're viewing them for the first time.